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Should Government Leaders Be Consistent or Flexible?

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

There are plenty of memorable soundbites that have been developed over time to define what leadership is and how leaders are distinguished. For example:

  • Leadership is an art as opposed to a science.
  • Leadership is something you do with people, not to people.
  • Leaders do the right things compared to managers who do things right.

If history is any indicator, infatuation with the topic isn’t going anywhere soon. There is an ongoing desire to identify who leaders are, where they come from, what they do, and how they do it.

At least part of the intrigue can be attributed to the reality that the topic has long integrated elements of its effective practice that appear mutually exclusive. For instance:

Question: Should leaders be consistent or flexible?
Answer: Absolutely!

Allow me to try and break that down.


Let’s face it. There are some qualities, characteristics, and perspectives leaders need to bring to the table. It doesn’t matter if you are leading in the public sector, the private sector, or in the confines of your own home. Here are three qualities for consideration (yes, there are many more):

  • Assumptions, Predispositions, and Mindset. Effective leadership emanates from a belief system or a set of values that could most succinctly be described as “people are good.” As such, people have innate talent that forms the foundation of their true potential. Leaders see through the layers that often mask that potential and are energized by the opportunity to get their hands dirty molding that raw clay.
  • Objectivity. Effective leaders are thoughtful people. Generally, they are less likely to get swept up in the emotion that invariably accompanies an individual’s development or regression on a task that truly matters. They stay grounded in the present. To borrow from the book of wisdom of our founder Dr. Paul Hersey, “Leaders treat people where they are, not where they used to be or have the potential to be.”
  • Courage. Leadership isn’t all that different from any other discipline. Understanding it is one thing, doing it is altogether different. Many thought leaders in our industry have made this distinction explicit over the years, but no one has done it better than Brené Brown in Dare to Lead.


When it comes time to engage as a leader, there is no uniform, sure-fire way to do it. In fact, the most inconsistent thing you can possibly do as a leader is to treat everyone the same. Your approach, however, needs to reflect the circumstances of the situation and the person you find yourself attempting to influence (for example, military versus civilian). That translates to developing comfort and proficiency executing the following approaches:

  • Empowerment. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing inherently good about empowerment. In fact, there are some in positions of leadership that have been known to employ this strategy as a mechanism for setting others up for failure or distancing themselves from projects they believe are fast-tracked for failure. When properly deployed, such as with staff that have exhibited both competence and commitment for a task, empowerment can be an active accelerant for trust, engagement, and retention.
  • Collaboration. Effective collaboration is typically a function of competent individuals representing diverse perspectives who are tackling a complex problem. In that regard, the leader needs to be able to set the stage (Think, here’s what we need to figure out . . .), create an atmosphere where those present can articulate suggestions to address the challenge, and then facilitate the mess that invariably accompanies passionate people lobbying for conflicting courses of action.
  • Direction. People that don’t know what they are doing are frequently reluctant to make that reality. Leaders need to step in to offer some guidance.

So, let’s revisit the question: Should leaders be consistent or flexible? As you can see, effective leaders need to be a bit of both.

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About the Author

Dr. Sam Shriver is the executive vice president of research and development at The Center for Leadership Studies (CLS). In that capacity, he serves as a senior thought leader, subject matter expert and author. Sam has over 35 years of direct experience with Situational Leadership®, organizational behavior and leadership development.

He holds a B.S. from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, an M.B.A. from Pepperdine University and earned his Ed.D. in training and development from North Carolina State University. Sam has designed and developed over 200 custom leadership and coaching programs and has been formally recognized by Bersin, Brandon Hall and the Association for Talent Development (ATD), in that regard. He has also authored numerous training and development white papers, journal articles, blogs in addition to the book and audio series, “From Coach to Coach.” He has also co-authored a best-selling service quality improvement program, “Frontline Service.”

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